The art of seeking public opinion and engagement has undergone a lot of change in the past decade, as the internet and social media have opened up the variety of ways in which we can ask people what they think, and the ease at which they can now tell us their thoughts. It’s got many advantages for the world of public engagement, but some organizations forget about the basics when planning an engagement campaign, and have seen disastrous results.

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Take the case of British Gas. A couple years ago, they decided to get on board with Twitter and hold a “Twitter town hall”, where Customer Service Director, Bert Pijls, would answer questions from the public. They used the hashtag #AskBG.

It seems like a good idea on behalf of the social media team, but they forgot one basic rule of engagement — timing. The same day they launched #AskBG, they also hiked their rates by 10%, which was not a popular move. The hashtag quickly filled with some very witty put downs of the gas company:

 

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Needless to say it didn’t go well for British Gas, and after an hour they gave it up.

Had this been timed better, BG might have been able to have true engagement with customers. But their timing was way off. And under the circumstances, they failed to use this surge of public participation to their own advantage. Some key messages, tweeted out, about their rationale for charging what they do (they must have had them!) might have helped. Or could they have directed tweeters to check out tips for fuel efficiency, maybe even in a cheeky way? Instead of letting the hashtag overtake them with negativity, they should have looked for ways to turn it around to advantage as quickly as possible.

Today’s lesson: When your organization wants to ask the public its opinion, be sure you know what you might hear and how you’ll deal with it before you open yourself up to public input.

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